Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative 5:02 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Rock, a speech which refreshingly followed the conventional format. And yet, as she declared in her interests, she is clearly a lady of imagination too. My noble friend also told us that her great-great-great-great grandparents eloped to Gretna Green, a story which seems to prove her enthusiasm for alliteration. The maiden speech of my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith was similarly excellent, and we look forward to their future contributions.

The late Charlie Hebdo editor, Charb, finished his last work “Open Letter” just two days before he was assassinated in Paris last year. In it, as Amanda Foreman recently reported in the Spectator, Charb writes: “No form of discrimination is better or worse than any other”. Discrimination, where it means choice based on prejudice, is wrong, not only morally but economically, too. And while we all know the moral objections, it is the economic objections to discrimination that are not discussed enough.

In Great Britain, we institutionalised discrimination against women. Within the last 100 years, women could not vote or be elected. Indeed, it was only last year that this House saw females join the Bishops’ Bench. Although thousands of entrepreneurial women ran all manner of small businesses in this age of discrimination, they did not really run large businesses. Systems like this gratuitously waste half the brains in the land and ignore half the entrepreneurs, which is the biggest waste of resources that any country can engage in. Wasting resources on this scale means less help for those who cannot work. I am glad that we have changed.

When I ran Manganese Bronze, the company which manufactured London black taxis, I used to have many conversations with drivers about all sorts of issues. As technology developed, these conversations increasingly moved online. Once, I engaged perhaps six or seven emails with an Australian taxi driver about the unusual regulation of taxis in London and the great advantages for disabled people. It was only at the end of the conversation that I realised that the driver was in fact a woman. Of course, it was wrong of me to presume that a cab driver was a man. It was a timely lesson, which I have not forgotten. Not only did I not know that she was a woman, I did not know whether she was deaf or in a wheelchair.

That made me realise that the internet is the greatest technological force for good and will allow women to drive future economic growth. Indeed, it will allow anybody with a good idea to drive future economic growth. Doing business over the internet can abolish the cause of discrimination. It takes away the excuse that has been used by so many people in the past.

The problem with discrimination is that it is often in the eye of the beholder. There are differences throughout our human race, which is what makes life such fun, but these differences should not be important and should not hold back individuals. Men are statistically more likely to take risks than women. Men are also more likely to commit crime, from murder to drug-taking and fraud. They are also more likely to drink themselves silly on champagne, rendering themselves useless to run a business and leaving the Veuve Cliquot to step in and run things. Thank goodness those entrepreneurial widows saved champagne.

Many countries still practise institutionalised discrimination. That is their idiotic privilege, I suppose, and we must respect the rights of sovereign countries to make complete buffoons of themselves. What worries me is when immigrants from those countries come to Britain with the intention of bringing those discriminatory systems into our society. It is said that the Pilgrim Fathers travelling to America on the “Mayflower” did so not to escape religious oppression but rather to find a vacant land where they could introduce it.

My worry is that some of the recent arrivals to Britain, very welcome as they are, seem to carry on with discriminatory practices in their new communities. They need help to appreciate that this is not the way we do things in Britain. An example is female genital mutilation, which colleagues both here and in the other place have done much to outlaw and, crucially, start to bring prosecutions against those who perpetrate that hideous act.

There should not be a separate society of hidden women in immigrant communities in any town in Great Britain. Everyone should have the chance to make the most of their brains, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. An example of this is sexually segregated audiences for political speeches. That should be offensive to the speakers of whatever parties are addressing them. The great universities which host them, such as the LSE, should be appalled.

I am told that this is not discrimination because the audiences are separate but equal—just the same arguments that were advanced for apartheid. In December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs Rosa Parks got arrested for sitting in a so-called whites-only seat in a bus. This led to the rise of racial equality as a political movement that changed America, but three other black people moved from their seats that day while Rosa Parks sat firm. All it would take is for the politician speaking to a segregated audience to denounce sexual segregation to that audience rather than mutely accepting it. After all, what is the difference between black citizens sitting in one part of a bus and female citizens in one part of a hall? I am not so sure that there is one.

Business has shown the way in eradicating discrimination, and I very much welcome the chance to celebrate this with colleagues on both sides of this House. Lessons from business should be heeded in other areas of society. I repeat the words of Charb: “No form of discrimination is better or worse than any other”.